Tren to the Clouds
by Olga Akselrad
This is the restored train, in Polvorilla. Picture taken from the official website
Just as Leyla did the Orient Express, I was about 18 months old when I went on this one, and don't claim to remember any of it; but it is a MAJOR feature for anyone visiting South America.
And I think it should probably deserve a mention in any "amazing train ride" list... I still owe it to myself, and I hope to do it next time I go back to Argentina! (I was born in Argentina, but now reside in Sweden).
The service runs along the eastern part of the Salta–Antofagasta railway line of the Belgrano Railway (also known as the "C-14" line) that connects the Argentine Northwest with the Chilean border in the Andes mountain range, over 4,220 metres (13,850 ft) above sea level, the fifth highest railway in the world. Originally built for economic and social reasons, it is now primarily of interest to tourists as a heritage railway, though cheaper tickets are also available for locals to use the train as transport.
Currently, the train leaves Salta station for the 15-hour, 434-kilometre (270 mi) round trip to the Polvorilla viaduct, located 4,220 m (13,850 ft) above sea level. The curved viaduct is 224 m (735 ft) long and 64 m (210 ft) high. Once the train has left Salta, it first enters the Valle de Lerma, and then the Quebrada del Toro, before reaching the puna.12 There are numerous stops along the way, some with markets selling artisan goods and locals offering regional cuisine. Normally tourists just take the one-way ride to the viaducto, which takes about 8 hours, and then return to the city by other means.
It was recently restored, which is good, because in the old pictures you can tell it must have been quite scary to be up there in that flimsy contraption on a windy day...
The official website, while only in spanish, has some incredible pictures and a little map of the route, which is incredibly convoluted because it was forced NOT to have any steep inclines.
Remember though that this is very high altitude, and it is common for people to experience effects of the acute exposure to low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitude. It commonly occurs above 2,400 metres (8,000 ft), and this goes a lot higher than that. People should probably not attempt it if they have been drinking or partying the night before, and should avoid that during the trip as well. Drink plenty of fluids, and that should help with acclimatization.
For more information on altitude sickness, you can refer to this article in Wikipedia, which is quite accurate and complete, and offers a list of symptoms and plenty of additional information.
If you love travel by rail, you might also enjoy A Beginner's Guide to Train Travel.